Same Wars, Different Fights: The Army and Air Force Visions

The Army of 2025 and Beyond will effectively employ lethal and non-lethal overmatch against any adversary to prevent, shape, and win conflicts and achieve national interests. It will leverage cross-cultural and regional experts to operate among populations, promote regional security, and be interoperable with the other Military Services, United States Government agencies and allied and partner nations. Leveraging the Total Force, it will consist of a balanced, versatile mix of scalable, expeditionary forces that can rapidly deploy to any place on the globe and conduct sustained operations within the full range of military operations. Composed of agile and innovative institutions, Soldiers, and Civilians, the United States Army of 2025 and Beyond provides strategic advantage for the Nation with trusted professionals who strengthen the enduring bonds between the Army and the people it serves.[1]
The United States Air Force will be a trusted and reliable joint partner with our sister services known for integrity in all of our activities, including supporting the joint mission first and foremost. We will provide compelling air, space, and cyber capabilities for use by the combatant commanders. We will excel as stewards of all Air Force resources in service to the American people, while providing precise and reliable Global Vigilance, Reach and Power for the nation.[2]

The joy and torture of being human is that we only know our individual, finite, fragile moment. The visions of our futures that we create are informed by these moments. The world has changed since the American military rebuilt itself in the 1980s. In 1980, agrarian modes of organization, especially in conservative military organizations, were effective means of mass organization. Centralized controls based on the Levee ‘en Masse had not been obsoleted by updated modes of war making, and the military had no reason or means of re-thinking itself. But in the 1980s globalization and the information age began to devolve from nation states to the individual. And the collapse of the Cold War created frontiers that America was not ideologically or cognitively ready to step into and dominate. This is the institutional moment in which the U.S. Army and Air Force have created their visions of the future.

The U.S. Army as an institution had to re-learn how to defeat this new threat in the mountains of Afghanistan and cities of Iraq. It had to re-learn to build regional expertise and understand of the environments in which it was fighting. It had to re-learn how to thrive in complex human and physical environments. It had to learn to fight enemies who were leveraging the increased power of the information age; combine hard power with soft power. The Army had to learn to fight connected individuals, operating in societies that with which it was not familiar.

The Army had to learn to fight connected individuals, operating in societies that with which it was not familiar.

The recently released Army Vision reflects this new reality. The goal of thriving in complex, alien environments by building a broad base of regional expertise and soldiers who understand the strategic components of complex systems is now reflected in the Army’s vision for the next decade. Interoperability, balance and versatility, scalability (i.e. purposeful organization), expeditionary, agility, and innovation are goals of their organizations. More importantly, these are also driven down as goals of the soldier.

The Air Force, meanwhile, has not seen the same threats to their supremacy that the Army has. Globalization and the growth of individual power has not yet extended into the high technology, high cost world of air power and devolved its capabilities to non-state actors in a meaningful way. Instead, the Air Force has had to find its ability to support the joint partnership by providing air power in close coordination with the tactical elements of the Army. The goal for the Air Force has been to drive access to air power down to the ground user who needs it. This too is reflected in the Air Force’s vision.

Globalization and the growth of individual power has not yet extended into the high technology, high cost world of air power and devolved its capabilities to non-state actors in a meaningful way.

This comes from the difficulties that the Air Force experienced coordinating air power with Army units in Operation Anaconda. The initial removal of the Taliban regime is held up as a glowing example of air power enabling small units and coalition partners to defeat larger conventional forces. But operation Operation Anaconda was a disaster of inter-service coordination. Combined Joint Task Force Mountain did not believe that it needed as much air support as it ended up requiring and did not closely coordinate its planning with the Combined Air Operations Center or Air Liaisons in the area. The Air Force and Army were both caught flat footed when Al Qaeda resistance was heavier than expected and the Air Force had to scramble to provide support, sometimes with disastrous consequences.[3]

High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs offer an important high footprint persistent platform for ISR and networking payloads.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued, there came a growing focus on integrating Air Force members into Army units in order to improve coordination at both the staff and tactical levels. The demand for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets saw the Air Force begin to increase its capital and manpower investments in both manned and unmanned ISR platforms and work to bring these to soldiers at the tactical level.[4] This experience was formative for many Air Force leaders. Internally, there have been massive changes in the Air Force over the last 10 years. A lot of the major commands may be the same or small variations on consistent themes. But the missions, aircraft, people, and mindset are very different inside those commands than they were 15 years ago.

The Air Force vision is highly focused on providing air power to the joint user. It begins with a joint ethos, building trusted relationships with the combatant commander, and advocating for air power’s compelling capabilities. Subordination to the joint fight has overcome the early airpower advocate’s hubris.

It is also a very inward-looking vision. The Air Force vision comes from lessons learned fighting enemies with a very limited ability to damage it. The Air Force is not worried about enemy threats to its ability to operate. It is worried about the challenge of working with joint partners. This is not a vision that is worried about technical, tactical challenges. It is concerned with organizational, operational challenges.

The Air Force vision comes from lessons learned fighting enemies with a very limited ability to damage it.

The Army has been the dominant joint partner in the last 15 years of war. The Army believes that this will continue into the future, as small wars and hybrid wars are won by boots on the ground closing and finishing the enemy. Either through destruction or engagement with counterinsurgency tactics. The Army will be “…interoperable with the other Military Services, United States Government agencies and allied and partner nations.” The difficulty for the Army is finding a way to fold itself into joint concepts like AirSea Battle and the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons. We will have to wait for more information to come out this fall to see on paper how the Army will be rolled into the joint fight in more conventional operations.

These two visions are a result of the last 15 years of fighting experience that the Army and Air Force have built. They are both highly divergent, and also complementary. The Army has taken the brunt of the changes that have occurred in the global civilization since the fall of the Soviet Union and is now learning to operate against connected and individually powerful enemies who operate in complex social and urban terrains. The Air Force has been finding its connection to its joint family, overcoming the hubris of early airpower advocates and finding a voice in the joint fight. The two services probably fight better together now than at any other time in the past. But can that hard won cooperation be sustained with such radically different visions of their futures?


Kurt Degerlund is an Active Duty Officer in the U.S.Air Force who writes on leadership, airpower, and international relations. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. You can follow him on Twitter @kjdegs.


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Notes:

[1] The Army Vision: Strategic Vision in a Complex World. (2015) [Monograph]http://usarmy.vo.llnwd.net/e2/rv5_downloads/info/references/the_army_vision.pdf

[2] About Us. (2015). http://www.af.mil/AboutUs.aspx

[3] Pirnie, Bruce R. Vick, Alan. Grissom, Adam. Mueller, Karl P. Orletsky, David T. (2005). Beyond Close Air Support: Forging a New Air-Ground Partnership [Monograph]. RAND. Project Air Force.http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2005/RAND_MG301.pdf Ch. 3 Pg. 60

[4] Ackerman, Robert K. (2005) “Changing Missions Influence Air Force Concept Planning” Signal. AFCEA. http://www.afcea.org/content/?q=changing-missions-influence-air-force-concept-planning